Ethiopian refugees

Ethiopian women refuge-seekers sleep on a roadside near the southern Yemeni village of al-Khabar after they arrived on a smuggling boat from Somalia.

| File | AFP

Smuggled, abandoned and raped: Life’s lot for undocumented immigrants

On the evening of October 8, 2016, Ayyantu was interrupted by two men who walked into her compound in East Shewa Zone of the Oromia region, Ethiopia.

It was a Saturday and the mother of two was preparing dinner for her family in the kitchen adjacent to the main house. The two men asked her the whereabouts of her husband.

“I took them to the main house where my husband was with the kids. At the entrance of the house, I called him and informed him that he had visitors. I ran to the kitchen to check on my pot, and my children followed me immediately,” Ayyantu recalls.

Husband killed

Then a gunshot rang from inside the main house. Ayyantu froze, holding onto her children.

The two men walked out and hurried towards the gate.

“It was then that I saw the guns they were carrying. One turned back and warned me against supporting the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF),” she recalls.

The OLF is a political party established in 1973 by Oromo people in Ethiopia, who believe they constitute a separate nation. The movement was the culmination of over 70 years of uncoordinated resistance by Oromos against the Ethiopian Empire.

Prior to the attack, Ayyantu, whose identity we have protected because she would later become a rape victim, says there was tension in Bishoftu, a town in the region.

A week earlier, on October 2, 2016, scores of people had died at the annual Irreecha cultural festival of Ethiopia’s ethnic Oromo people.

Irreecha marks the end of the rainy season and the start of the harvest season.

According to a Human Rights Watch report released in 2017 dubbed ‘Fuel on the Fire’, the stampede was triggered by security forces’ use of teargas and firearms in response to an increasingly restive crowd.

Detained by police

Some died after falling into a deep open trench, others drowned in the nearby lake while fleeing from security forces and witnesses told Human Rights Watch that others were shot by security forces. Many were trampled after armed security forces blocked main roads exiting the site, leaving those fleeing with no options.

The 2016 Irreecha festival was held following a year of protests against government policies and security-force aggression that left more than 1,000 people dead across Ethiopia and tens of thousands detained by security forces.

Following the events of that day, there were numerous protests around Bishoftu in the hours and days after the event.

In the days that followed, many individuals who attended Irreecha were arrested in their homes.

Angry youths started attacking government buildings and private businesses, leading to an abusive and far-reaching state of emergency, which was lifted in August 2017.

Ayyantu got the courage to enter her living room only to find a bloody scene that is still fresh in her eyes.

“They fired just one bullet to his forehead, blowing up his brains. From where he was sitting, blood had splashed on the wall behind him. I just stood there and covered my children’s eyes,” adds Ayyantu.

With her husband and father of her children dead, Ayyantu had to think fast, even as her neighbours started trickling in her homestead.

She took her children, a few personal belongings and left her home heading to the South of the country.

She travelled about 460 kilometres to the town of Gebugela, where her brother lived.

Crossed to Moyale

“When I got to the village and explained what had happened, my brother asked me to cross over to Moyale in Kenya and wait for things to cool down before we could go back to his place,” says Ayyantu.

After days on the run Ayyantu and her children arrived at the Somare camp in Moyale as a new asylum seeker.

The camp is among many others along the Kenya-Ethiopia border and is run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

At the camp, she made friends with *Qantuu, who had been at the camp for four days.

Qantuu and her four-year-old son had run away immediately after the events of October 2, after losing her husband in the Irreecha cultural festival stampede.

“Life was not easy at the camp and the children were not making the situation any better. After interaction with Qantuu, she revealed to me that there was a way out of the camp to the city, where life was better,” Ayyantu added.

The way out of the camp needed money, which Ayyantu did not have at the moment.

For the next five months, Ayyantu and Qantuu worked within the camp hoping to save money and pay for their way to the city.

They also sent messages to their families back home to help them raise money and because they only needed to get to Nairobi, they were asked to raise Sh60,000 to secure them a space in a vehicle to the city.

Going to South Africa

Unlike Ayyantu, most of these immigrants’ final destination was South Africa, so they had to pay more to be smuggled.

Over the years, however, illegal immigrants to South Africa have decreased because of continuous ‘Afrophobic’ attacks faced by migrants.

On March 20, 2017, Ayyantu, her two children, Qantuu and her son started the journey to the city, but what they did not know was that it would not be an easy ride.

Due to corruption, which has led to poor and weak enforcement of immigration laws, state officers have turned Moyale into a haven for smugglers, with underground networks profiting from desperate asylum seekers from Ethiopia and Eritrea.

In a 2015 report, Kenya’s National Crime Research Centre described Moyale as a major recruitment centre for Kenyan agents and an epicentre of human trafficking.

Here, in the country’s main town up north, cartels facilitate the illegal crossing of migrants into Kenya through Moyale, Dukana and Forolle in North Horr, Bute in Wajir North and Takaba in Mandera West.

Police officers and border officials reportedly get their cut to ease their movement.

Law enforcement officers are bribed at road blocks and, in extreme cases, they are bribed to release intercepted migrants.

 Some money also goes to vehicle owners and safe-house landlords.

Karanja, who did not want his full name disclosed for his security, is a hawker in Moyale town who doubles up as an agent for a smuggling ring that helps Ethiopian and Eritrean migrants enter Kenya illegally.

The two women and their children met Karanja at his place of business on Friday evening in March 2017.

Together with their few belongings, Karanja led them out of the town centre in a hired taxi to the town of Sololo.

Journey to the city

They arrived one hour later and found a lorry waiting for them. They immediately boarded the lorry and since they were the last people being waited on, the journey to the city began.

“When we entered the lorry, we found more than 20 people already inside. We had to squeeze to create just enough space for us to sit. Inside the lorry were all kinds of people; young, old, men and women. Some were already asleep.

The vehicle was covered, so it was hard to tell where they were but Ayyantu was sure they drove through the bushes.

According to her, a lot of people stayed hungry throughout the three-day journey as the vehicle only stopped in the middle of nowhere.

“People shared what they had carried from Moyale and after that was done, we stayed hungry and survived on water, which was abundant in the lorry,” she said.

After three days, Ayyantu, Qantuu and the children arrived in Kiamaiko, a slum 12km northeast of the Kenyan capital.

 The lorry driver handed them over to an elderly woman of Oromo origin who was only introduced to them as Bikeltu.

“The driver told us that Bikeltu would help us settle in our new home. He also promised that the woman would help us get jobs within the local community,” Ayyantu says.

A two-roomed metal-sheet house on a narrow staircase became their home as they tried to navigate through their newfound life.

Unfortunately, Bikeltu abandoned them a few days after they arrived in Kiamaiko, but they were lucky to find more people from their motherland.

The mother of two, through other Ethiopian women in Kiamaiko, started washing clothes for people in Ngei and Mathare.

In 2019, after she learnt a bit of Swahili, Ayyantu ventured into the food business after she was convinced by her friends that it was more lucrative.

Ayyantu, together with her friends, would leave their house in the wee hours of the morning to head to Gikomba.

From Kiamaiko, the four women would board a matatu from Outer Ring Road and disembark at Meru Road in Eastleigh, then walk to different parts of the station. At around 5.30am, Ayyantu would start taking breakfast to her customers. She would spend the day there until after 3.pm, when she would head back home to her children.

While at work, Ayyantu’s children are taken care of by a house mate who is a new mother.

The business catered for her family’s needs and that of one of her friends who had come to stay with them and watch after the children as Ayyantu worked.

For the period Ayyantu has been in Kenya, she has not sought any government services, including healthcare, but on the morning of April 20, 2019, she was raped as she headed to her place of work.

“From Eastleigh, my business was on the other side of Gikomba, so when I disembarked from the matatu, I had to walk through wooden and corrugated-ironsheet stalls. The place is also dark at that time. I have walked the same path for the past four months. Just when I was about to get to my stall, someone grabbed me from behind and I fell down. Before I could get up, the person held my mouth with a piece of cloth in his hands.

“It’s then that I realised they were four of them. One kept holding my mouth while pressing my head onto the ground. I was lying on my back. The second and third person each held one of my legs wide apart. Thinking of what was about to happen, I struggled to change the position of my body but I could not move.

“I lay there, helpless, as the fourth person raped me while choking me. At some point I was unable to breathe but he kept going on. Once he was done, he exchanged with one of those who were holding my legs. The second guy also raped me,” she said.

Ayyantu says she was saved from the third rapist by people who were walking to their stalls.

After the incident, Ayyantu immediately returned home and did not share what had happened with her friends.

After regaining her strength that evening, she went to a health centre in Kiamaiko but she was asked to return the following day after reporting the matter to the police.

“I went back the following morning but the officer I found there did not help me. In fact, he told me I was in the wrong because I was illegally in Kenya. He even threatened to arrest me if I continued disturbing him,” adds Ayantu.

She went back home and did not tell anyone what had happened to her. The mother of two stopped going to Gikomba and stayed home.

Two months later, she fell sick and went to a local chemist where after some tests they found she was pregnant.

It’s only after finding out she was pregnant that she shared with her friend the horrific ordeal of that Saturday morning.

She kept the pregnancy and in January 2020, she gave birth to her third-born child, a bouncing baby boy.

Ayyantu says since the rape incident, her life got worse.

She confessed that at some point, she wanted to take her life and that of her son.

“I regret running away from Ethiopia. I wish I was killed there; I wish those who raped me that morning took away my life. There was a day I just wanted to end the misery I was going through and I stabbed myself several times but my friend found me and called the neighbours,” she says.

Ayyantu says the Covid-19 pandemic has left them helpless in a foreign country as they cannot even get donations from well-wishers helping those in the slums because they do not have identification documents.

“For one to get relief food, they have to register using their identification papers, which most of us here don’t have,” she adds.

Ayyantu was, however, lucky to come across Team Revolution, a youth empowerment group that has been training girls and women on how to run small businesses in Korogocho.

Together with other women in Kiamaiko, Ayyantu underwent a one-week training, where she gained cooking skills.

After the training she got a small loan from the group and started a roadside food stall in Kiamaiko.

“I had to look for something to earn me a living. I have three children to take care of so I don’t have the luxury of staying in the house and pitying myself,” she adds.

Ayyantu’s story represents those of many undocumented immigrants who leave their country seeking protection only to suffer more in foreign lands.

But do undocumented immigrants have rights in a foreign country?

Mr Demas Kiprono, a lawyer, human rights advocate and campaign manager at Amnesty International, says the Constitution of Kenya confers all human rights to every person within Kenya.

“Moreover, international human rights law, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Kenya is a party to, recognises the inherent right of every human. This means that an undocumented immigrant has the right to life, dignity, security, freedom from slavery and torture, right to a fair trial, access to justice, freedom of expression, among others,” Mr Kiprono says.

He adds that no one should be denied these rights just because they are not documented.

“It is noteworthy that the right to access information under Article 35 is conferred to citizens, though legal challenges have expanded the right. Most rights in the bill of rights are conferred to ‘every person’, though Article 35 talks about ‘every citizen’,” he adds.

He, however, noted that procedurally, such persons would have a challenge accessing certain rights because they do not have refugee or national IDs.

According to the lawyer, nothing prevents an undocumented person from accessing justice within the borders of Kenya.

“Gender desks and Gender Violence Recovery Centres normally concentrate first on medical care for the victim and identification of the perpetrator. Once this is done, for purposes of the case moving on and presentation of witness statements and testimony, the police can find alternative ways of identifying the victim,” he says.

To seek justice for the undocumented person, they can sometimes be given the option of regularising their status by registering as a refugee, which according to the lawyer is a right that every person has.

“At this point, in tandem with the principle of 'First do no harm' it is not the priority of law enforcement to look at issues of illegal entry, although they may probe to find out whether such persons are victims of human trafficking,” adds Mr Kiprono.

Apart from legal help, undocumented immigrants need a lot of mental health and psychosocial support.

Ayyantu found that help through Ms Evelynn Kanya-Grace, a certified counsellor.

Ms Kanya, who has also worked with Movement Against Child Trafficking (MACT), together with a group of other counsellors, have been working with community and social workers to identify undocumented immigrants who need mental health and psychosocial support.

"Working with community and social workers makes it easier for us to reach these people who most of the time lock themselves in their houses because of the fact they have no documentation. A lot of them suffer in silence because they are illegally in the country," Kanya said.

Once in their care, Ms Kanya and team assess the kind of help the undocumented immigrants needs.

"We have encountered some who have been sexually abused and together with social workers we have pursued the cases. Police officers have also been of great help in pursing the perpetrators but Ayyantu’s case was different.  She was brought to us over a year after the abuse happened. What she needed most was counselling, which she never got when she was raped."

According to Ms Kanya, Ayyantu is now freer to walk into a counselling centre and talk about what she is going through.

For Ayyantu, just knowing that she has a place to run to when she needs to talk has given her more reason to live and fight another day.

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